Tuesday 7 October 2014

Franco Files:
Bloody Moon

In 1981, a group of callous German producers sparked a major incident in the esoteric world of horror movie sub-categorisation, when they thoughtlessly invited the ‘80s American Slasher Film to make incursions into the ancient kingdom of Jess Franco. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Nobody quite remembers. Either way, a confrontation was inevitable, and the results could have been catastrophic. Forces were mustered, and, in a darkened alley near a picturesque Alicante holiday village, the two sides met for a showdown.(1)

Strutting, Slasherdom paraded its arsenal:
* A large cast of young actresses, each of them more conventionally attractive and quote-unquote ‘wholesome’-looking (not to mention more frequently clothed) than those you would expect to see in a 1981 Jess Franco film.
* The shadiest and most incompetently managed Spanish language summer school in the known world. (“International Youth-Club Boarding School of Languages” reads a sign spelled out in those slanted, adhesive letters that are usually used for putting house/room numbers on front doors.)

* Teen pool party opening sequence incorporating hand-held ‘killer POV’ shots and mildly ‘transgressive’ usage of a Mickey Mouse mask.

* A bold wardrobe of ‘80s casual attire that actually seems pretty spot-on in its circa-’81 anticipation of the more garish trends of the coming decade.

* A generous scattering of conveniently placed gardening tools and industrial wood-cutting equipment.

* Lumbering, mute gardener guy as obvious red herring.

* A succession of neatly cling-filmed corpses deposited in and mysteriously removed from closets for maximum jack-in-the-box scare / ‘huh-it’s-gone-am-I-going-crazy’ effect.

* Sinister introverted brother who has been released from mental institution, but clearly shouldn’t have been because he’s crazy and murderous. I mean, just look at him - he has a scar on his face and silently stares at stuff. Nuts, I tell you.

* An excruciating American-English dub track that seems designed specifically to make every female character sound like a congenital moron, and every male sound like a sleaze-dripping closet psychopath. (And to make us laugh like a drain whenever an underpaid voice artiste sighs and gives her best shot to a line like “I bet he’s never even made it with a girl, the phony Spanish lover!”)
His pride wounded by all this unfamiliar transatlantic hoo-hah, Franco responded in kind:
* Wobbly tracking shots across picturesque Spanish harbours, culminating in a focus pull on that big goddamn rock he seems to like so much.
* Exactly the same Costa Blanca shooting locations seen fifteen years earlier in Attack of the Robots.
* An actress who looks a lot like the regrettably absent Lina Romay moping seductively in the upstairs window of a Spanish hacienda in a transparent night-dress, contemplating mischief. (The very same window used to frame Françoise Brion in ‘..Robots’, if anyone’s taking notes.)
* Wobbly, focus-blurring zoom shots of the moon, because, y’know – moon.
* A soundtrack that sounds as if the employees of a German library music label began pulling all-nighters and experimenting with Gysin/Burroughs cut-up technique.
* Language school proprietor who struts into the student “Disco Club” in a white suit & black shirt combo, momentarily looking like some decadent, DeSadean strip-club overlord.(2)
* Gore effects so audaciously shoddy they practically break the fourth wall and engage you in discussion re: the persistence of notions of theatricality and disbelief suspension in genre cinema
* Uncomfortable (and illogical) incest-based sub-plot.
* Persistent, low level evocation of that particular atmosphere of intangible, woozy dementia found in only the finest deep cuts of European trash-horror.
And so, battle commenced, in a conflict that will be known forever as ‘Bloody Moon’. Unless you live in Germany - then it's ‘Die Säge des Todes’ (“The Saw of Death”). Or Spain, in which case it’s ‘Colegialas Violadas’ (“Violated School Girls”). In Denmark, it was ‘Sexmord på Pigeskolen’ (“Sex-Death at the Girls’ School”?). Argentina went with ‘Terror y Muerte en la Universidad’. But no matter - to the likes of us, ‘Bloody Moon’ it is.

Legend has it that ‘Bloody Moon’s producers, keen for some reason to recruit the commercially washed up director of ‘Hellhole Women’ and ‘El Sexo esta Loco’ to their slasher dream project, lured Jess Franco on board by promising him the chance to work with up-and-coming German sexploitation star Olivia Pascal, the services of “one of the best effects guys in Hollywood”, and an original score by Pink Floyd.

Pascal materialised. The ‘Floyd did not. Effects ended up being masterminded by some guy Franco knew who handled props and owned a polystyrene head. A bit of a bummer for our long-suffering auteur, we might suppose, but seasoned Francohiles will well know that when the chips are down on a production, that’s often when the magic happens. Often, but not always. Sometimes ‘Oasis of the Zombies’ happens, but we’ve just got to cross our fingers and pray.

In the highly enjoyable interview included on Synapse’s recent blu-ray edition of ‘Bloody Moon’ (from which the screen-grabs above are definitely NOT taken), Franco speaks at length about his dislike for the film’s German composer, whom he angrily accuses of providing “fucking Dutch music”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Hopefully we can assume that, rather than dismissing the entire cultural output of The Netherlands here, Jess is here referring to some particular form of film music popular at the time, or something like that? I’ve got no idea what he means to be honest, but regardless - if this German cat was bringing it, and Franco wasn’t digging it, my instinct is to go with Jess on this one. (Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the frankly unhealthy amount of time I’ve spent watching his work, it’s that JF knows a good tune when he hears one.)

Ever willing to take a deep breath and give it his best shot, Franco took up the bat and got swinging, digging into his own archive of surplus musical bits and bobs and applying a bit of the ol’ cut n’ paste to Gerhard Heinz’ credited score, with reliably off-kilter results. (The extraordinarily odd, squelchy cue that serves to weirdify the otherwise wholly routine “killer POV ascending the stairs” shot early in the film is my personal favourite moment in this regard.) 

It is easy to assume that Franco applied a similar ‘make do & mend’ spirit to all aspects of this ill-starred shoot too, his veteran’s determination to make the best of a bad job for once triumphing over the opposite tendency toward cack-handed laziness that more frequently shone through in his early ‘80s work-for-hire gigs. Despite all the initial signs of hostility between ‘Bloody Moon’s oil & water components, such inspiring leadership seems to have led to both parties in the dispute realising that they had more in common than they initially thought (after all, what was Franco’s earlier ‘Exorcism’ (1974) if not a peculiarly twisted entry in the pre-‘Halloween’ proto-slasher canon?), allowing the project’s conflicting aesthetics to blend and interact in strange and wonderful ways.

For me you see, the thing about slasher films is that their inherently minimal and repetitive format demands that, to become enjoyable for those of us who have no particular love for the genre, they must be… what’s the right word? Eccentric – that’ll do. To generate interest, a slasher must either a) be a technically excellent and emotionally involving motion picture ('Black Christmas' or Tony Williams' 'Next of Kin' spring to mind), or b), plug the gaps between dead teens with the most off-beat, aimless and just plain weird diversions that come to hand. And, given that so many products of the sub-genre’s early ‘80s golden age were cheap, amateurish films made by otherly inspired individuals for purely opportunistic reasons, many of them thankfully embark upon route b) with a great deal of gusto.

‘Bloody Moon’s Spanish-pretending-to-be-American compatriot ‘Pieces’ is perhaps the preeminent example of how things right, by which I mean wrong, by which I mean just sort of strange and confused, in this regard. The Australian-pretending-to-be-American ‘Strange Behaviour’ aka ‘Dead Kids’ is another good one, as is the genuinely-American-though-presumably-beamed-in-from-another-dimension ‘Hack O Lantern’. You can pencil in your own additions to the list, I’m sure. If not, the archives of Bleeding Skull should provide a lifetime's worth of pointers.To recap then: routine, competently made slasher = BORING. Eccentric, amateurish slasher = GOOD TIMES.

During Bloody Moon’s opening half hour, there were some shaky moments where I was worried things were heading in the former direction. The vacant, empty-eyed teens and tedious two-shot conversation scenes. The duh-brained “homages” to ‘Halloween’ and ‘Psycho’. The over-before-its-even-begun un-plotline. The surprisingly good but never quite exceptional cinematography. The presence of this so-called Nadja Gerganoff (in her only screen role) occupying the ‘slutty older sister’ role that should so rightfully belong to Lina. 

But I should have had faith. By the time a detailed discussion takes place regarding the most appropriate sweater to wear on a midnight fishing expedition with some lusty sailors, I was getting into the swing of things. After a perfectly cube-shaped polystyrene boulder narrowly misses our heroine's head, I had that nice “literally anything could happen next” buzz going on. As things stumble toward a climax, the pace quickens, slightly. Events get wilder, editing choppier, framing wonkier and music more unhinged. By the time Lina’s stand-in artlessly slices a guy in half with a chainsaw, I was ready to stand up, weeping with joy, and thank God for bringing all these people together for a few weeks on the sultry Spanish coast.

As far as the – ahem – serious consideration of Jess Franco’s cinematic legacy goes, few would seek to place ‘Bloody Moon’ on the same level as his more accomplished and personal work from the ‘60s and ‘70s. But as a Halloween-adjacent Friday night beer & pizza movie, it delivers beautifully, in ways that a non-Franco directed cynical cash-in slasher would likely never have achieved.

So, to return to where we began. It is 1981. The ‘80s American Slasher Film and the world of Jess Franco face each other across that dark alley near Alicante. Silence reigns. After a few minutes of whsipered discussion, they decide to cancel hostilities and made sweet love instead. The result? WE ALL WIN.


Kink: 3/5
Creepitude: 3/5
Pulp Thrills: 4/5
Altered States: 2/5
Sight Seeing: 3/5


(1) ‘Bloody Moon’s main production heavy-weight Wolf C. Hartwig was the man behind the interminable “Schoolgirl Report” series that pretty much defined the aesthetic of cheapo German sexploitation in the ‘70s (and of which Franco directed one of the stranger installments). Hartwig’s hefty catalogue of cinematic tat actually stretches as far back as 1959’s ‘Horrors of Spider Island’, and in 1977 he seemingly tried to re-balance the scales by taking the sole producer credit on Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’, the same year he also handled ‘When Girls Make Love’ and ‘Confessions of a Naked Virgin’. I’ve not read up on the working relationship between Hartwig and Peckinpah, but one suspects they might not have seen eye to eye.

(2) The “Disco Club” also serves litre bottles of beer to students as a takeaway, plays lumpen, Shawaddywaddy style retro-kitsch rock n’ roll and allows entry to passing sailors (rollerskates optional). My kinda language school, as if we hadn’t established that much already.


C. Rancio said...

Nadja Gerganoff is a nem that should be in the classical cast of recurring characters of uncle Jess, like Morpho, Radek, Orloff...

C. Rancio said...

I mean NAME! not nem!